We’re now in digital chains

Surveillance State
Last Updated 07 January 2019, 19:02 IST

The order issued by the union home ministry recently authorising 10 intelligence, tax and law enforcement agencies to “intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer” has raised much protest, given that the intentions of the ruling government have become suspect.

Such sweeping powers are almost certain to be misused and abused by a government which is by nature authoritarian and paranoid by instinct and temperament. Totalitarian methods prove to be very seductive for politicians of all stripes who jump into it using any newly available form of political surveillance whenever advances in technology and social organisation make it feasible.

Growing threats to our privacy and relentless development of surveillance technologies and the willingness of governments to exercise those technologies against their own citizens are now realities that citizens in many countries face.

Since over half a century, and increasingly since September 11, 2001, information about people’s personal lives have been obtained, stored and shared, and studies employed to influence and manage populations. And the more electronically connected we are, governments and businesses are more liable to collect and process our personal information on a massive scale as everything we do, and everywhere we go, leaves a trail.

But then, can there be any autonomy of person without privacy? Can there be any freedom without autonomy of person? The threat of terrorism has done this to us; and as a disruptive agenda it has thus been hugely successful in compromising our freedom. The prospect of losing one’s freedom is no less lethal than the threat of physical extermination.

Therefore, the recent order to implement Section 69(1) of the Information Technology Act, as amended in 2008, which allows interception, monitoring and decryption of information transmitted through or stored in a computer resource is of a piece with impulses that suit the current dispensation at the Centre to take steps to curtail the liberties of citizens in the name of internal security.

The central government is now empowered to impose ‘reasonable’ restrictions on the right to privacy whenever there is a putative threat to national security, national integrity, security of the State, and to friendly relations with other countries, or “in the interest of public order and decency, or to prevent incitement to commission of an offence”. In short, the legal justification for snooping has been made in so broad terms that almost anything can be interpreted as an act of transgression.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Electronics and IT as well as Law & Justice, darkly hinted about attempts of Inter-Service Intelligence, the Pakistani spy agency, to spread radical Islam in India and of the terrorist group Islamic State to recruit ‘gullible’ Indians on the internet, perhaps as justification for which the National Investigation Agency recently conducted raids at 17 locations in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in connection with an ongoing investigation into Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam, a new module of Islamic State. But with Lok Sabha elections round the corner, the executive order can well transform into a McCarthyist tool to nab putative ‘dissenters’ and ‘anti-nationals’.

What is alarming is that while a central agency had to seek permission of the home secretary on a case-to-case basis for surveillance under the 2009 rules, requiring it not only to seek permission of the home secretary on a case-to-case basis, but also to provide detailed reasons for its request in writing, the new order gives literally unfettered discretion to the 10 agencies.

While in the past only the home ministry could scan and intercept calls and emails of people, now 10 agencies — the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes (for Income Tax Department), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Research and Analysis Wing, Directorate of Signal Intelligence (in J-K, North East) and the Delhi Police Commissioner – are empowered, ex cathedra, to practically snoop on citizens with a digital trail.

Such measures are draconian for the implicit assumption that governs a State seeking to wield such sweeping powers — first, it suspects all citizens, though it has been seen that only a miniscule minority of the total population are errant or involved in criminal activities including terrorism; and second, it treats its citizens condescendingly with little consideration that privacy is now a fundamental right and cannot be trampled upon without adequate checks and balances, for instance, without an individual knowing if her electronic communications are being intercepted/monitored.

It has rightly been pointed out that internal security being the primary animus behind the recent order, there is little justification to authorise agencies such as the Delhi Police, the CBI, and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence as they cannot strictly be considered as organisations concerned with homeland security.

Perhaps we have reached a point where the pace of technological development is so fast, and its potential impact on society so significant, that the introduction and subsequent use of disruptive future technologies should be subjected to a closer scrutiny than has been done so far. It is legitimate to ask if technology companies are serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control.

In March 2018, it became known that 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested by Cambridge Analytica in an instance of major data breach. Clearly, no country in the world has internet laws and technical infrastructure sufficiently equipped to be able to monitor and control such volumes of content and their social impacts.

With our tendency to constantly upload personal details onto social networking sites with gay abandon, we make ourselves willing ducks for snooping and its consequences. It is time to think how we can salvage the rubric of democracy in a highly technological setting in which the surveillance of private citizens is the norm.

(Published 07 January 2019, 17:57 IST)

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